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A Manhattan apartment renovation unearths historic charms

Life, work, and passion happen in a reimagined Gramercy apartment

This Manhattan story has all the makings of a hit musical: An actress moves to New York for a life on the stage. She finds a diamond-in-the-rough home, remodels it, and creates a space that feeds her creative energies and projects. She launches her own cabaret-style musical and inspires Ryan Gosling as Sebastian to open a jazz joint.

Well, most of that is true. Mary Bolt may not know Gosling and personally thinks La La Land doesn’t deserve the hype, but she knows her own style and dreams, and that makes for a charming, real-life renovation tale in Gramercy.

The actress and singer is drawn to musical theater. “If that’s your dream, you move to New York City to make it happen,” Bolt says.

A kitchen is built around a tall column with a fancy capital. A cabinet is placed high above a door, and you get to it by hooking a ladder on the vertical rail below it.
Before the remodel, this large column was hidden. When it was discovered, owner Mary Bolt wanted it to be a centerpiece. Kitchen cabinets are by desciencelab, countertops are by Get Real Surfaces.

After graduating from Yale, she did just that. But, as any musical fan knows, when dreams meet reality, it can be a jarring moment. She found herself living at a distance from the city. “The commute was not ideal and not helping my career,” she says.

Her aunt (who lives in the apartment next door) tipped her off when this unit came on the market. “She called me and told me about it, and said it had a lot of potential,” says Bolt. “And when I saw it, and its high ceilings and huge window, I agreed.” She purchased it two years ago and moved to the center of it all.

Left: A steep flight of stairs goes to a loft in the bedroom. There are cabinets under the stairs. Right: Mary Bolt, the owner, liked the original paneling, floor, and radiator. She had them restored.
Left: A small flight of stairs leads to the bedroom loft space. Lee made the most of storage opportunities by including under-stair cabinets and a display niche near the ceiling. Right: Cabinets used to hide the radiators, but when they were removed Bolt fell in love with the industrial nature of the unadorned unit. The floor and the paneling are original.

Bolt calls the tale of her home “the most New York City story ever told.” In a previous iteration, a married couple bought both her and her aunt’s apartments and remodeled them into one large unit. When the union dissolved, so did the newly enlarged home—the divorced couple simply erected walls to divide it into two units again. “That’s so typical in this city, neither one was willing to give up the apartment, so they both stayed,” says Bolt.

But the hastily built walls created an odd layout and angles. That’s where the fairy godmother figure comes in, in this case architect Denise Lee. Lee was already at work remodeling Bolt’s aunt’s apartment, so she knew the building intimately and relished the thought of taking on another project in it. “This building has really good bones,” she says.

The loft area has a low ceiling and a mattress. It can be a place to relax or for guests. The bedroom has original wood molding and white plaster walls.
Left: Day to day, the loft space is a place to dream, but it occasionally serves as a guest area. Right: The window molding was restored and the architect chose hand-troweled plaster on the rest of the walls as a complement.

Those bones include the aforementioned high ceilings and large windows, as well as original finishes and moldings—although those weren’t readily apparent at first. A gorgeous wood floor was hidden under cheap laminate flooring; industrial, sculptural radiators were cloaked by wooden cabinets and many layers of paint; and the ceiling had been dropped in some areas to make way for HVAC ducts.

But the grandest surprise of all was hiding behind the wall of a bathroom closet: a brawny column topped with an ornate capital, a remnant from 1873, when the building was constructed as a bank. “I was so thrilled when we discovered it,” says Bolt. “I wanted it to be a focal point of the apartment.”

“It was an incredible find,” adds Lee. “It was in pretty good shape; we just had to expose and repair it.” In a sense, that was the program for the entire project. “Mary’s hope was to maintain and restore the original details of the building,” Lee says.

The living room is sparsely furnished with a sofa, a chair, and a coffee table.
Bolt keeps the living room spare intentionally, as it’s often the scene of theatre gatherings. The green sofa was left behind by the former owners of the apartment next door. The ladder, when not in use, hangs on the wall at right. The table is by desciencelab. Bolt describes the light fixture as being crafted in the style of the Taraxacum light from FLOS. The wingback armchair is from Ikea.

With that in mind, Lee started by opening up the space and rearranging the floor plan, reconfiguring it as a large central space containing a kitchen, dining area, and living room, with two bedrooms on each end. To make the 12-foot ceilings work harder, she installed high storage that’s accessed by a ladder where possible.

“There’s a place for the ladder to be hung when it’s not being used, but I usually have it out as I use it all the time,” says Bolt. “If you have space like this in this city, you have to make use of it and find a way to reach it.”

In the bedroom, Lee employed the high ceilings by adding a small loft. “It’s tricky because the ceilings are tall, but not tall enough to merit a full-height loft,” says Lee. “But you can have a low space where you can comfortably sit down, and it gives you a better view out the window.”

Mary Bolt plays the guitar on a green sofa.
Bolt (seen here) says living in the newly space inspires her creativity.

For Bolt, the loft area becomes a place for dreaming, and for guests. “I’m one of five kids, so I’m familiar with bunk beds. There’s something about this space that reminds me of a bunk bed in a cabin. It’s where I go to read,” she says. “It’s also a place where my sisters stay when they come to visit.”

That idea of a cabin is also a driving force behind this remodel. Bolt’s personal aesthetic embraces the rustic, cozy nature of a lodge as well as a sleek, spare look. “I’m really drawn in two directions, rustic log cabin and minimalism,” she says. “It must have been frustrating for Denise, but she did an amazing job interpreting those styles.”

Lee did it by not only preserving the original details, but by using classic and textured materials in a modern way. For example, the new walls and ceilings aren’t drywall, they are hand-troweled plaster. “It’s a softer, more textured look than drywall,” she says.

A bathroom has white tile installed vertically rather than horizontally. In the kitchen, concrete counters wrap around a big column.
Left: Lee had the Heath Ceramics subway tile installed vertically for a modern look. Right: The concrete counters embrace the column.

The kitchen cabinets bend around the angled walls and the column. (“The angle of the street results in irregularly shaped spaces throughout the building,” says Lee.) The cabinet form, with novel upper doors that slide and never fully cover the storage space, is decidedly modern. Their material, reclaimed white oak, is not.

“The wood complements the original floors,” says Lee. “The design is unconventional, but it allows you to curate what you see on the upper shelves, changing the openings to display objects of different sizes. It was important to see through the cabinets to the plaster wall behind."

The countertops and backsplash are concrete, a visually softer material that melds with the more rustic textures in the room. The backsplash is a few shades lighter than the countertop. “I like how the plaster, wood, and concrete work together,” says Lee.

A photo of the high cabinet above the door and an exterior photo of the ornate building.
Left: The cabinet above the door is accessed by a ladder that hooks onto the black metal rail. In this under-1,000-square-foot unit, making use of high storage was key. Right: The building was built as a bank in the 1873.

The rustic-modern look is also reflected in the furnishings Bolt selected for the place. The pieces may not be all be modern, but there are not many of them. The green velvet sofa, for example, was probably meant for more ornate surroundings at the time it was manufactured. In this spare environment, the vintage piece takes on a contemporary nature.

“The sofa is a funny story, actually. It was left behind in my aunt’s apartment, and she gave it to me. Months later, a friend sent me a photo of a Taylor Swift album, and there she was in my aunt’s unit sitting on it. It turns out the former owner used to rent out the apartment for photoshoots,” says Bolt.

Perhaps that’s the first musical endeavor where the sofa played a part, but it currently is witness to many others. “Part of the reason I don’t have a lot of furniture is that I use this space as a rehearsal space. For the last nine months, I’ve been presenting a cabaret-style show I created called “In the Boys’ Club,” where women perform songs that were written for males,” Bolt says. “Leaving a lot of open space was an intentional thing. My roommate is a composer, so we’ve had a lot of music and readings here. For an artist, not having to rent a practice space is monumental.”

Bolt says that the home, her first permanent residence, is now perfectly suited to her needs. “It’s amazing how Denise was able to realize my vision and how it all fell into place,” she says. “It’s everything I wanted and more.”

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